John Sayles is one of the most talented independent directors filming today. In movies such as “Brother from Another Planet,” “Matewan” and “Lone Star,” he’s told stories about everyday people as they live their lives, try to build better worlds and find themselves caught in their human frailty. His latest movie, “Men with Guns,” follows a wealthy but dying city doctor as he searches the interior of his country for the students he had trained to treat the indigenous poor. Like Dorothy following the yellow brick road, he collects a caravan of lost souls along the way and learns what his ignorance has wrought, both personally and for the life of his country.
The tale is set in an anonymous Latin American country and the ambiguity serves its purpose well. This is not the story of a particular set of abuses or a specific government or army. It is a tale of what happens when capitalism, military rule, rhetoric and human fallibility come together. It is a story of what happens when good people refuse to confront atrocities being committed in their name and instead opt for a willing naiveté.
In interviews, Sayles said he got the image of “men with guns” when he imagined the lot of Vietnam’s “rice people”, politically-simple peasants who went on harvesting rice for hundreds of years as a succession of “men with guns” came through in waves of terror. It didn’t so much matter if the armies were Chinese, French, American or from North Vietnam: all men with guns rule with what seems an arbitrary brutality. The most that the locals can do is stay out of the way.
At it’s heart, “Men with Guns” is a pacifist and anarchist movie, though assigning such labels diminishes the work and threatens to turn Sayles into another manifesto writer. He’s too interesting for that and uses story-telling to show us the world and how it works. Ultimately, the movie blames everyone for their role in the terror – the soldiers, the rebels, the priests and our good-hearted but naïve doctor. But Sayles also absolves them and pulls them from their caricatures as he shows us the larger forces that drove them to their roles.
Last Friday, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, a leading human rights activist in Guatemala, published a scathing report documenting abuses from Guatemala’s 36-year civil war; two days later he was murdered in his own home by unknown assassins. The real-world model for Sayles’ doctor was Guatemalan and it’s hard not to see Condera’s murder as another incident of brutality by men with guns, figuratively if not literally (his murderer reportedly used a cinder block). Seeing John Sayles’ latest movie would be a fitting tribute to Condera’s work and that of others struggling for justice in the world.